The laughing owl, or whekau, became extinct in the early twentieth century. The last known bird was one found dead on a road at Blue Cliffs Station, near Timaru, in 1914. The species had succumbed to the clearance of its habitat to create farms, and to newly introduced predators. Stoats, ferrets, and cats proved especially fatal for the birds.
Effective hunters of beetles, birds, and lizards, the laughing owl – so called because its shrieks had the quality of a crazed laugh – had no defence against deadly, mammalian predators. Not only were they the prey of wild mammals, but humans hunted them too – for museum specimens, for curio collections, and for zoos.
Laughing owls lived in fissures or deep crevices of limestone cliffs, and probably in tree holes before large-scale forest clearance had occurred. Some nest sites were used for many generations. A Takaka cave site is thought to have been continuously inhabited for around ten thousand years.(1)
Because of the way the owl fed, such sites have yielded a goldmine of information about the fauna that existed here before the arrival of humans. They also show the change in populations of small animals, birds, and invertebrates over time as new species were introduced.
The laughing owl, like other birds of prey, cast out pellets of the indigestible parts of the animals and insects it had eaten. These accumulated about nest and roosting sites and, over time, formed layers of debris. For sites repetitively used over millennia, these layers can be up to a half-a-metre thick. Forty-three species of native bird, including kiwi and ducks and even morepork, have been identified in laughing owl ‘middens’, along with three species of bat (one of which is extinct, the greater short-tailed bat), seven species of lizard, two species of indigenous frog, some fish, numerous beetles and weevils, and a species of tuatara.(2)
Coinciding with the arrival of settlers from Eastern Polynesia was the appearance of the kiore (Pacific rat) in the layers of debris at laughing owl roosting sites. As the kiore began to eat the invertebrates that the owl preyed on, it in turn was added to the owl’s diet – no doubt out of necessity as these rodents had consumed the owl’s prey. Kiore probably also found the eggs and young of the laughing owl an easy targets for predation, so its effect was doubly devastating. Later, with the arrival of Europeans, the bones of European rats and birds become evident in the layers around owls’ roosting sites.
Their preference for dry and inaccessible roosts helped with the preservation of these remains. And although, sadly the owl no longer survives, the relics of its nest and roosting sites paint a valuable picture of the diversity and abundance of small animals and birds in prehistoric New Zealand.
(1) Worthy, Trevor and Holdaway, Richard. 1996. ‘Laughter in the night.’ New Zealand Geographic October/December.
• Tennyson, Alan and Martinson, Paul. 2006. Extinct birds of New Zealand. Wellington: Te Papa Press
Text originally published in Tai Awatea, Te Papa's onfloor multimedia database (2006)